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Cindy Sherman Turns The Sweep Of History Into One-Off Costumes

A retrospective of the artist’s singular style of portraiture makes its way to the SFMoMA.

On a recent episode of This American Life, Ira Glass opens the show with an anecdote about his trip to see Cindy Sherman, a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art. Sherman has been taking photographs of herself for almost four decades in various states of elaborate hair, makeup, and costumes (all done herself) or almost completely unadorned, in situations and locations that look like they’re straight out of a movie set.

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These pictures, all untitled, capture a moment in time designed to tell a larger story; that story, however, is completely up to the viewer. Anyway, it was there at the MoMA, amidst over 150 images featuring close-ups of Sherman’s face and figure, that a lady approached Glass and his friend, claiming to be Cindy Sherman herself. They didn’t know what to believe. It seems almost impossible to imagine that standing in a gallery adorned with wall-to-wall portraits of the artist as a young woman, as a grown woman, and countless women in between, that Glass couldn’t identify her positively, but such is the allure and enduring mystique of Cindy Sherman.

Since leaving New York, the exhibition has been installed on its sole West Coast stop at the SFMoMA, where it opened last week. The larger-than-life-sized characters on a floor-to-ceiling photo mural that greets visitors represent Sherman’s first foray into computer manipulation (there’s one other incredibly large portrait on display that she Photoshopped), but she was actually an early adopter of digital technology. “She works without an assistant in the studio,” SFMoMA curator Erin O’Toole tells Co.Design. “So she doesn’t have to go out to get the film developed or change out of character, she can look at images and say ‘well that didn’t work,’ or ‘I can change this.’ She loves that.”

The rest of the show follows a roughly chronological, but largely thematic, journey through her career. At her most “natural” Sherman looks like a mix of Shirley MacLaine and Barbra Streisand, with a hint of Tilda Swinton tossed in–this is perhaps most evident in the room of her iconic, Hollywood-inspired Untitled Film Stills from 1977 to 1980. From there, the collections alternate from sweet to gruesome, sad to seductive. It’s like the most surreal personal album put on display for all to see, but Sherman doesn’t exactly view it that way. “She doesn’t think of them as self-portraits,” O’Toole says. “When we were setting up the show she’d point and say, ‘Well we could put her here, and her over there.'”

Viewed as a whole, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the role women have played in art, film, and society through the ages, and how one individual has managed to embody, challenge, and advance so many elements of femininity–and humanity–by using herself as a canvas.

As for the alleged Sherman chatting up visitors? She denied it, on air, on This American Life. However… “We kind of thought she was putting on Ira Glass,” O’Toole says. So convincing are her disguises, so deeply does she embody these characters she creates, that the world may never know.

Check out Cindy Sherman at the SFMoMA through October 8th before it travels to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, then on to the Dallas Museum of Art.